Porter WagonerDuring his final hours on earth, 80-year-old Porter Wagoner received a bedside serenade from Dolly Parton, the country chanteuse he mentored and nurtured into a star so many years ago. One of country music’s most beloved early icons, Wagoner succumbed to lung cancer on Sunday, October 28 in Nashville, Tennessee.

Born in 1927 in the Ozark Mountain region of Missouri, Wagoner’s move to the West Plains area of the state would garner him the enduring nickname “Thin Man from West Plains.” Wagoner taught himself to play guitar by singing and strumming along with the country tunes coming from his radio. As a teenager, he worked in a butcher shop, where he’d often sing during his downtime, impressing the shop’s proprietor so much so that he sponsored a local radio show to get the budding artist heard. Wagoner formed his first group, the Blue Ridge Boys, and found inspiration in Hank Williams’ performance of “Lovesick Blues” at the Grand Ole Opry—an institution that Wagoner would become deeply connected to.

Wagoner was 24 in 1951 when he was offered a show on Springfield radio station KWTO. That first show quickly led to a gig on Red Foley’s “Ozark Jamboree” program, broadcast to both radio and television. Less than a year later, Wagoner was signed to RCA and delivered his first recording, a cover of Williams’ “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” By 1954, Wagoner had found his groove and scored his first No. 1 hit with “A Satisfied Mind,” followed by the Top 10 charting of “Eat, Drink, and Be Merry (Tomorrow You’ll Cry)” several months later. With a broad smile and penchant for sharp, flashy suits, Porter Wagoner had already developed a persona that would win him the hearts of millions.

Porter Wagoner with a Gibson J-200Less than 10 years after seeing Hank Williams perform there, Wagoner joined the Grand Ole Opry, where he remained one of its most popular stars up until his passing. It was through the Opry that he launched The Porter Wagoner Show, a TV institution by any standard and one that ultimately defined his career.

Beginning in 1960, the syndicated The Porter Wagoner Show began its 21-year run, aired in close to 100 markets, and was seen by an estimated 3.5 millions viewers. During his early years on the show, Wagoner frequently hung with artists and drinking buddies like Carl Smith, Mel Tillis, Merle Kilgore, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard. Meanwhile, he racked up hits like “Skid Row Joe” and “Misery Loves Company.”

Wagoner’s television show proved to be an important force in popularizing both country and gospel music—particularly that of Dolly Parton. Parton replaced Wagoner’s partner of seven years, Pretty Miss Norma Jean, after the singer left the show to get married. Parton, then relatively unknown, was championed by Wagoner who dueted with her frequently. “Carroll County Accident” was the first of many hits for the pair and also Wagoner’s first Grammy nomination (he would win three several years later for his gospel effort with the Blackwood Brothers).

With any major success comes hardship. Wagoner and Parton, bigger together than either was solo, endured something of a tumultuous relationship. Despite continued hits, Parton left the show in 1974, but the two continued to record together throughout the decade, delivering hits like “Say Forever You’ll Be Mine” and “Is Forever Longer Than Always.”

Porter Wagoner and Dolly PartonAfter close to 30 years, RCA and Wagoner parted ways in 1981 when his show went off the air. While he pursued various projects—film, recording projects, Opry-related gigs—the ’80s and ’90s were a relatively quiet time for him. Wagoner returned in fine form in 2000, releasing the aptly titled The Best I’ve Ever Been. He followed that up with last June’s Marty Stuart-produced Wagonmaster, for which he garnered some of the best reviews of his life. Wagoner promoted the album with a summer tour, even opening for the White Stripes at Madison Square Garden.

“Losing Porter is like losing a member of my family,” says Dolly Parton. “I will miss him, as we all will. We were always so attached musically and emotionally. But a part of him will always live through me and my music. I feel fortunate that I got to spend the last hours with Porter. I had hoped to say a proper goodbye and God saw fit to allow that to happen.” Indeed, the man with the big smile and the worn baritone voice will be deeply missed.